“A Case for Sensory Decolonisation – Autistic Escape”, the digital film conceived by Magda Mostafa is displayed as part of the Time Space Existence Collection at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, hosted at the European Cultural Center’s Palazzo Mora. Courtesy Magda Mostafa

When We Design for Autism, We Design for Everyone

METROPOLIS’s associate editor Jaxson Stone sits down with Magda Mostafa, autism design consultant and architecture professor at the American University in Cairo, to discuss neuro-inclusive design and her installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

When did you start thinking about the relationship between autism and architecture?  

Magda Mostafa: Architecture is such a practice of the multisensory. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and when I got into it, it was that classical kind of necessity is the mother of invention scenario—a group of parents came to me and they wanted to design a school. I was working on my doctoral dissertation completely unrelated [to autism] and when we went searching for any kind of guidance to help us design, as you can imagine, there was absolutely nothing. There were barely enough people that you could talk to who understood what autism was.

So, I changed my focus and my research to create these experimental classrooms. We were able to expand some of the classroom design prototypes that we had done and refine them a little bit more. And then in 2014, all of that came together when we published The Autism ASPECTSS Design Index. People have called [the index] guidelines. I don’t like to call it that because I feel guidelines is too prescriptive and I really don’t think that designing for autism can ever be a guideline or a code because there is no one strategy or solution that will work for everyone. So, I think of it more as a framework of issues, lenses through which you need to think about the built environment through as you’re designing.

One of the things that I struggle with is that people assume what I’m calling for are sterile, neutral environments that are empty of any stimulation. And that’s absolutely not what I’m advocating for. I believe in flexibility and customizability that allows for sensory seeking, sensory avoiding, and sensory regulation. So, it’s this very flexible notion of thinking about space itself as a spectrum of sensory affordances and opportunities.

The Autism ASPECTSS Design Index is the first set of evidence based design guidelines worldwide to address build environments for those on the autism spectrum.

Can you tell us more about the elements that make up the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index?

So, the seven criteria are seven architectural notions. The first, of course, is acoustics. Every stakeholder, engagement, survey, interview, or focus group that I did with parents, teachers, and autistic students themselves, the first issue we always talked about was noise and how to mitigate and manage it. The second is spatial sequencing—to think about [designing] spaces as we move through and experience them as opposed to just being static vessels of activity. Issues include how we enter from the street, to navigation and wayfinding, to the infrastructure of hallways and corridors to classrooms, etc. The third thing is escape. And it’s suggesting that we need to not think of our spaces as binary in and out—we need to create moments that people can retreat to and build them in. The next is compartmentalization, which is breaking spaces down into manageable, sensory, discreet spaces that only have the sensory stimulation that’s required. And then transitions, which is creating the space for adjustment, so people aren’t expected to move dramatically and suddenly from one experience to another. Sensory zoning is the sixth one, where we look at designing our spaces through their sensory qualities, not only their functional qualities. And then the last is safety. We could talk about safety in terms of physical safety, but [we should also talk about] the role that architecture plays in mental health and safety. Those are the original seven criteria and then we expanded them out to be the 18, including things like color and lighting, furniture, materiality, wayfinding, navigation, technology, how technology can be deployed in a way that’s mindful and intentional.

The collage is a digital compilation of visual contributions to The Sensory Atlas- a global call for visual representations of autistic sensory experiences in our cities as part of “A Case for Sensory Decolonisation: Autistic Escape”, curated by Magda Mostafa, showcasing work with autistic voices and experiences from around the globe. It is displayed as part of the Time Space Existence Collection at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, hosted at the European Cultural Center’s Palazzo Mora. Featured artists include: David A Karasow, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Joshua Downes, San Francisco, California, USA Stuart Neilsen, Cork, Ireland Dani Burns, London, UK Digital compilation by Mahinour Yasser

I feel like a lot of autism-centered projects I see out there are focused the needs of young autistic children, which is obviously really important, but I’m also interested in how design can benefit autistic adults. You mentioned the Autism Friendly University Design Guide and I’d love to hear more about that project.  

Yes, so that project came to me from an autism self-advocacy group of autistic students and individuals themselves. It’s interesting because I’ve been anticipating this request for a while now. When I first started my work, all the requests that I were getting were to design K-12 schools and it was all about that younger cohort because the awareness around autism still wasn’t at the point where people understood autism and adulthood or autism across different gender identities. But that cohort that was diagnosed around 2002, those little ones moved through [life] with a more aware type of support. So, they’re now at the age where they’re emerging either into the workforce or into higher education. I remember one mother coming to me when I was designing a high school and saying, “Everyone’s talking to me as if my son’s going to evaporate at the age of 18.” It’s like, he’s still here. So, what happens next?

Yes, autism isn’t something you grow out of. Autistic kids turn into autistic adults.

Exactly. So, I was anticipating this and then this project came to me, followed by a workplace project, and I’m already anticipating the next wave is going to be assisted living like senior housing for autistic aging. Earlier you mentioned burnout and it made me think about two women I met in the U.K., both autism advocates. We were on a panel together; I was talking about my design work and they were talking about their advocacy work. And then they came to me after and pretty much said that it never occurred to them, grown women in their twenties who work in the autism advocacy space, that they had the right to ask for built environment accommodations in the same way their colleagues that use wheelchairs or have hearing aids do. That was a big light bulb moment for me because it made me feel so ashamed of our profession. It shouldn’t be that way. Everyone should have the equal right to advocate and demand what they need from their built environments.

So, the university design project was informed by [lived experience] from the beginning. I was paired with an autistic student who worked with me one-on-one and we did sensory audits through the autistic lens. The guide itself was peer reviewed by autistic students and autistic architects and autistic parents, and people who received diagnosis later in adulthood. In my mind, that’s what gives it legitimacy.

From the beginning, we insisted that it be open access. It was also written in a way that was specific enough so a facility’s manager at a university campus could use it to guide what they were building on campus, but it was also general enough that someone who was designing a workplace environment, housing project, or transportation infrastructure could also apply it.

A video photocomposite capturing the sensory experiences along a path out of the DCU campus, by Stuart Neilsen, Cork, Ireland. The images are showcased as part of “A Case for Sensory Decolonisation: Autistic Escape” curated by Magda Mostafa as part of the Time Space Existence Collection at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, hosted at the European Cultural Center’s Palazzo Mora. The images represent the autistic lens, perspective, related to the built space, a pathway, as an overstimulated busy pathway and as a quiet sensory, less busy, pathway.

Tell us more about your work at the Venice Biennale.

So, the first iteration in 2021, of course, was during COVID-19. So, there were so many limitations on what we could do, and what we ended up doing was an overview of ASPECTSS and the application of aspects to different projects and typologies, demonstrating how it could be applied and implemented to different scales and across different user groups, and contexts. And then in this second iteration in 2023, we looked at two things. First, to present autism as a lens of expertise to think about our environments in a way that is more equitable and accessible to a larger number of people—to use the autistic experience as expertise as opposed to problematizing autistic experience and thinking.

When we design for autism, we design better for everyone. And it sounds like a very romantic notion, and some people may agree, some may disagree, but until we have data to support that claim, a lot of people just brush it off as someone advocating for their own work or self-promotional romance. So, one of the things I wanted to do was create a spatial experiment that I could gather data from to have a proof-of-concept moment to see whether or not these concepts work, how well they work, and if they work for both autistic and neuro-typical individuals.

So, the installation is two parts. It’s an external wall of images, video, some three-dimensional, almost sculptural relief on the wall that we have projection art onto. The objective of the work on the wall is to simulate the city experience. So, the argument I’m making is that our cities are these jungles of unnecessary overstimulation that’s been driven by commodification, capitalism, and this consumerist culture. And one of the fallouts of that is that cities are becoming less and less accessible to individuals who have sensitivities to the sensory environment.

There is also an audio immersion track that comes with it and the audio was crowdsourced from autistic individuals themselves who sent in audio of their own overstimulating experiences. And we also used images that were crowdsourced by autistic individuals from around the world. And then we have a small ceiling mounted installation that forms a very simple escape space that you can step into for a moment. And then as people leave the installation, they’re invited to reflect on their experience and give us some feedback so we can start generating and gathering that data around the effect that those escape spaces have in the context of a simulated city environment. And already, the data that we’ve collected so far shows that both autistic and non-autistic individuals are reporting a sense of calm at almost the same levels.

Yeah, as an autistic person myself, I’ve never been to the Venice Biennale, but I’m sure I would be overwhelmed by it.

It’s a very rich experience, but it is really overwhelming, and you do find yourself going through the exhibits, hungering for a moment just to escape and step out and readjust and recalibrate. Because when sensory information is so much, there’s a certain point where you can’t process anything anymore.

Lastly, can you talk a bit more about how you’re using the word “decolonization” here?

So, I’m trying to draw this parallel between colonization and how its manifested today through capitalist mega industry and corporate driven, advertising driven, social media driven manipulations of our senses throughout our cities where every square inch is up for grabs when it comes to advertising and pushing products on us. And so, I intentionally use the word to provoke a conversation around the idea of commodifying cityscapes. People can have a lot of conversations about the social impact of it this, but they often forget that it also has impacts of access. We have to be more responsible about the stimulation that we’re creating in our spaces because we wouldn’t throw in a flight of steps without an elevator or ramp. So, why are we throwing in this overstimulation that’s just as potentially disabling for someone who has sensitivities? So, that’s where this whole notion of sensory decolonization came around. I don’t want quiet cities, I don’t want empty cities, but I think we just need to be more mindful about how we curate the sensory environments of our cities with the autistic experience or neurodiverse experience in mind because it’s not just individuals on the spectrum that can struggle with this. There are a whole bunch of people that are suffering as a result of this commodification of our spaces.

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